LAST weekend the government promised residents of Mufindi District in Iringa Region that it will get to the bottom of land conflicts and other problems involving Sao Hill Forest farm and communities living around.
The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ambassador Khamis Kagasheki, who was in Mufindi on official tour said the government recognized the valuable contributions by villagers living around Sao Hill forest farm and that his ministry will ensure they continue to enjoy the benefits in the very best way.
The Minister who was in Iringa region to get a first hand account of the conflicts around Sao Hill forest farm, held meetings with regional and district (Mufindi) leadership, councillors, the farm workers and local timber harvesters.
In tackling the problem, Ambassador Kagasheki said wisdom will be employed and the law adhered to to ensure the matter is settled amicably. The dispute is about villagers who encroached the farm and started subsistence farming as well as erratic issuance of timber harvesting permits for the year 2012/13.
The Minister promised to suspend all officials involved in the permit issuance exercise which was allegedly marred with numerous irregularities. It is alleged that the committee involved favoured applicants from outside the locality and gave more than one permit to some individuals including government officials, who in turn sold them at exorbitant prices of more than 15m/-.
He concurred with small entrepreneurs in timber business that the 2012/13 process was badly administered and nullified more than 292 out of 561 permits issued in question. Some of the officers implicated in the matter have been transferred to other offices, including the ministry's headquarters in Dar es Salaam, pending the outcome of a probe currently underway.
The minister promised to suspend all those to be found guilty. The Minister was purely dismayed by the committee tasked with vetting applicants for the permits which comprised five officials all from the Sao Hill forest farm.
"I am terribly shocked that members of the committee that issues permits comprises officials from the management level of Sao Hill forest farm. Under such circumstances, there will be no fairness, in the whole process," Ambassador Kagasheki stressed.
The committee comprises the Sao Hill forest Farm Manager, Assistant Manager, Managers of four divisions of the farm and the Manager responsible for timber harvesting. The farm's four divisions are Mgololo, Ihalimbo, Matanana and Irundi. Due to its large size Sao Hill forest farm was divided into four divisions, each with a manager.
Once the committee has screened names of applicants it picks the most favourable and submits the list to the ministry, where the director of planning, and Sao Hill managers prepare the final list. "This is a big shock. I will make sure this is changed in accordance with the law, because I am not convinced that under such circumstances rights of all applicants and fairness will prevail," he stressed.
The 292 permits that have been invalidated are for people who obtained multiple authority, and those that used different names. "I am under so much pressure from villagers, politicians and the public to address this issue and I will.... Tanzania is among least developed countries, however the abundant natural resources that we have, is more than in any other country in Africa and some countries in the world, so why are we still poor?" Ambassador Kagasheki wondered.
The minister explained that his ministry has elements of people who tangle up with businessmen and politicians, which interferes with fairness in execution of their duties to the public, leading to favouritism in exchange of small tokens. Ambassador Kagasheki visited Kibengu village to witness the extent of villagers' invasion of the forest farm.
In Mgwao ward, some people had built permanent houses for over 30 years now. Last year the minister said reports from two probe teams formed by his ministry and the government to investigate forest reserve borders in the country will provide recommendations that will provide the basis for solving the problem at the Sao Hill farm and at other forest reserves in the country.
Mufindi North MP Mahmoud Mgimwa, said villagers surrounding Sao hill do not benefit from the forest despite their crucial role in taking care of it including putting off wild fire. He urged the minister to address the problem of permits and land conflicts, so that money from Sao Hill forest can also be used to bring about development for the local community.
"Kahama are proud of riches from gold deposits, Mtwara are proud of the abundant natural gas deposits. The trees are our gas in Mufindi but we are yet to see and enjoy any benefits," he stressed. Mufindi South legislator Mendrad Kigola suggested that 70 per cent of permits for forest harvesting should be issued to Mufindi locals, while 30 per cent should go to people from other regions in the country.
He added that the board tasked to administer issuance of the permits should also include people living around the Sao hill forest. "There are so many problems that the people of Mufindi are facing...schools do not have desks, children sit on the muddy floor, while trees that we are helping to grow and take care of are being harvested and timber transported out of the region," he noted.
Mr Expedito Magi, a small scale timber entrepreneur said he applied for a permit in 2004, but was told to pay 600,000/- in order to get it. "I was only able to pay 300,000/- but still I did not get the permit," Mr Magi who is a disabled, said.
Despite the conflicts and problems, the farm has brought numerous gains to not only the government in terms of increased revenue but also to communities living around the forest farm. According to Sao Hill report, government revenue collection has increased to 25bn/- in 2011/12, a 115 per cent of the set target of 21.5bn/- compared to 22.3bn/- in 2010/11.
Sao Hill Forests Assistant Manager, Planning and Harvesting, Ms Mandalo Abeid Salum said revenues have been increasing every year because a big number of trees in the forests has matured and are due for harvesting. It was also revealed that the forest farm employs more than 1,000 labourers yearly, many of them from local communities in Mufindi and especially those living around the forest farm.
About 30,000 locals receive employment every year in timber and paper industries and more than 1,000 locals conduct different business activities including food vending to timber transportation within the farm. Last fiscal year the farm allocated 50m/- for development projects that covered various sectors including health and education as well as construction of village offices in areas surrounding the forest farm.
This was as twice as much what was allocated in the previous two years (25m/-). Mufindi District Commissioner (DC) Evarista Kalalu earlier told the minister that villagers had invaded over 1,000 hectares of Sao Hill forest and built houses. She said six villages including Ihomasa and Udumuka encroached the forest farm and have been staying in the areas for between 10 and 40 years now.